Network Marketing Or Pyramid Scheme? How to Tell - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine July/August 2018 Issue

When he signed up to be an independent associate for Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., Cameron Brickey thought network marketing was an easy way to make a buck. Several weeks and $800 later, he thought otherwise.

Brickey heard of Pre-Paid Legal, a network marketing company that provides affordable legal services for low- to middle-income individuals and families, while attending a job fair last October. He borrowed money from his girlfriend for the membership fees—three payments of $50—and another $300 to $400 for the starter package and other required tools, which included business cards, stationery, flyers, training materials, and handfuls of DVDs, videotapes, and books that explained the particulars of the company.

Working 20 to 30 hours a week, Brickey says he participated in mandatory conference calls with other Pre-Paid Legal associates to talk about sales and ways to generate more business. He also says he held in-home presentations to try and sign up new customers, placed flyers at the public library and on parked cars, and passed out business cards in front of the neighborhood grocery store. But three months after joining and with virtually no income to show for it, Brickey was ready to call it quits. “I’m really frustrated with the whole thing. … I was in an income crunch and I was trying to be positive and give it a chance.”

The Real World of MLM and Pyramid Schemes

Whether it’s lack of sales experience or bad luck, many people fail at network marketing, or multilevel marketing (MLM), as the industry is also called. And while many MLM companies are legitimate, others—better known as pyramid schemes—prey upon the unsuspecting. Determining how much money you can really make and identifying the schemes can sometimes be bigger challenges than selling the products or recruiting people into the network.

Network marketing is a system in which a manufacturer pays people outside the company to sell its products and services directly to consumers. In return, each salesperson is given the opportunity to build his or her own independent sales force, called a downline, by recruiting, training, and motivating others to sell the same products and services. The products are sold outside of a fixed retail location, primarily one-on-one, at in-home gatherings, and product demonstrations. Typical products include personal care products, wellness items, cleaning compounds, educational tools, and home decorations.

Pyramid schemes (which are illegal) require people to invest money up front, based on the promise that others will put more money into the system, some of which will filter back to the original investors. A pyramid is strictly a money game that rarely deals in real commerce. In most cases, there’s no product involved at all; only money exchanges hands. And while some pyramids may have a product, it’s there solely to disguise the money game.

Direct sales for 2003 totaled $29.55 billion, according to the Direct Selling Association. The DSA is a Washington, D.C.-based national trade organization comprising firms that manufacture and distribute goods and services directly to consumers.According to the organization, 13.3 million people in the United States participated in direct selling last year. These figures are up from $28.69 billion and $13 million, respectively, for 2002. And while some have earned a decent wage directly marketing the products of legitimate businesses, this area is fraught with pitfalls and scams.

Compensation varies with each company, but in most cases, representatives receive a percentage of their sales and the sales made by members of their downline. According to John P. Hayes, co-author of Network Marketing for Dummies (For Dummies; $21.99), the percentage of a representative’s own sales can be as much as 25%. Therefore, the more people you bring in to sell under you, the more you make.

Keep in mind that legitimate businesses will not promise you wealth beyond your wildest dreams, because most network marketers don’t come close to achieving the picture-perfect lifestyle of lavish houses and luxury cars guaranteed by some network marketing companies. While a handful achieve millionaire status, it’s far more common to end up spending more than one makes. Most network marketing people fall somewhere in between, carving out a modest income of a few hundred dollars a month—fine as a supplemental income, but not enough to live on.

“The average direct seller makes about $13,000 a year,” says Amy Robinson, director of communications and media relations for the DSA. “The median income is about $2,400 a year. Now that’s an important distinction, because the average is skewed by the people who are making a lot of money compared to the people who are in it as a hobby. So when you look at the median—which of course means 50% make more, 50% make less—you’re only looking at about $2,400 a year.”

For most people, network marketing is not a road to riches, but it can be a viable business opportunity if one sets realistic goals and works hard. Before you get involved, however, consider your motive for wanting to become a distributor. Then carefully investigate the company, costs, product, and pay (see sidebar).

Getting Paid

Notwithstanding the pitfalls, enterprising individuals have made a decent living in network marketing. Among them is Tracey Murphy, 35, who became an independent distributor for Market America three years ago when he was looking to make enough money to purchase a home, car, and motorcycle. Market America is a Greensboro, North Carolina-based company that directly markets consumer items such as health and nutrition products, cosmetics, home and auto care goods, custom clothing, flowers, and phone services over the Internet. Having been referred by a cousin, Murphy invited a Market America representative to his house for a talk about the company’s products and services.

“Of course, like anybody else, I was skeptical, because when you’ve got somebody sitting in your house, throwing all of these big money figures at you, you think to yourself, ‘Well, if I can make all this money then why are you driving a Nissan Sentra?'” says Murphy. “But I looked further into it. I went to a business briefing and to their convention.”Convinced that Market America could not only bring in a good income but also allow him more time with his family, Murphy signed up with the company six months later, shelling out $1,500 for cases of products and materials. Having just been laid off from his factory job, he worked part time as a distributor while enrolled in school, earning $6,600 a month selling Websites from his Ewing, New Jersey, home.

Finding success with the Websites, Murphy focused on marketing more of the company’s products and began building his business team, made up of about three dozen members, who all get a bonus when the team meets its goal. After three years of hard work, Murphy now spends about 10 hours each week operating his business.

Even though Murphy has achieved success, he says it was a result of a lot of hard work recruiting distributors and selling products. Leroy Taylor, a fellow distributor at Market America, suggests choosing a product or service that you would use yourself. “If you’re in any type of direct sales, and you don’t really believe in the product, it’s really hard to distribute it,” says the 36-year-old, who joined Murphy’s downline after experiencing great success with the company’s vitamin line. “I would suggest that anybody looking into any type of direct sales should look for a product that they can relate to and that they would or could personally use themselves.”

Rhonda Adams also swears by network marketing. In 2001, after leaving her job as a technical sales analyst for a telecommunications software company, the 32-year-old Chicago resident was introduced to Warm Spirit, an Exeter, New Hampshire-based beauty and wellness company that sells nature-based skincare products and other beauty aids for women and men. Adams paid $500 for the initial starter kit, products, and office supplies and began working the business.

Her idea was to make extra money to pay some bills until she could find a full-time job. However, not many bills could be paid after her first monthly check—a paltry $222. So Adams redoubled her marketing efforts to increase brand recognition. “When I started, I did a lot of shows, what we call ‘gatherings,’ to introduce the products,” says Adams, who today spends 15 to 20 hours a week operating her business. Now a director for Warm Spirit, Adams has trained eight managers, maintains nearly 700 customers, and takes home about $6,000 a month.

Beware of the Hype

Still, many people like Brickey walk away with little or nothing after spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars working as network marketing distributors. Some let the overinflated earnings claims cloud their judgment. They invest what little cash they have, hoping to net a huge return—but hardly ever do. Others are simply fooled by illegal scams disguised to look like legitimate business opportunities and end up losing everything.

NETWORK MARKETING REALITY CHECK

Before listening to a sales pitch about a network marketing opportunity, use this guideline to help determine the legitimacy of a marketer’s claims and whether network marketing is the right move for you.

Investigate the company. Once you set your goals, investigate the company that interests you. Find out if it’s a member of an industry association, such as the Direct Selling Association or the Multi-Level Marketing International Association. Also, contact the National Fraud Information Center. Nonmembership doesn’t mean your company of choice is a pyramid. Keep in mind, however, that organizations like these hold their members to a strong code of ethics and not only prohibit illegal scams but also provide tips and advice on how to spot and avoid them.

Check with the watchdogs. Call your local Better Business Bureau, consumer protection office, or other notable consumer agency to see if the company is in good standing or if any complaints have been filed against it. You can also obtain information about consumer complaints from the Federal Trade Commission, but you must make your request in writing. To see if any formal actions have been taken against a company, call your state attorney general’s office,” advises Leonard Clements, president of MarketWave Inc., a network marketing consulting and information company in Henderson, Nevada.

Verify taxes. To help verify financial claims, review tax forms from the last five years of the person trying to recruit you into the organization. If he or she refuses to hand over the returns, watch out. It may be an illegal scheme. Also be wary of any MLM with a “no-buy-back policy.” Legitimate companies that require inventory purchases will buy back unsold merchandise for at least 80% of what you paid, should you decide to quit the business. Some state laws require buy backs of at least 90% of the original cost.

Identify the product. The whole idea of network marketing is to use direct salespeople to sell products or services to the end consumer. So if no product or service exists, and only money is changing hands, head for the door. Pyramids often disguise themselves as reputable MLMs by taking on a line of products and claiming to sell them to consumers. However, little time and effort is spent actually marketing the products because profits come from recruitment. Ask what sort of marketing is allowed. If the company resists using viable ways to notify the public about its products or services, look out. You may be in pyramid territory.

Network marketing isn’t for everyone. To determine if it’s right for you, first weigh your goals, both personal and financial, and make sure they are realistic. For most people, direct selling is not a cash cow, so you most likely won’t make $1 million in just 18 months, working only 10 to 15 hours a week.

The bottom line is that people can and do make a decent living through MLMs, but it requires a lot of time, hard work, sales experience, and the proper disposition—and even then success is not guaranteed. Then one must do the proper homework to make sure they’re not being lured into an illegal pyramid scheme.

Mind the costs. No matter which network marketing company you choose, it should cost you very little to join. Most startup fees of legitimate firms are less than $500. This cost typically includes a sales kit complete with company information and a few product samples. Some incoming distributors opt to pay more than the required fee so that they can have more products on hand. When considering the costs, watch out for companies that pressure you to pay large amounts for the privilege of joining or that try to load expensive inventory or training aids on you.

Get literate. Secure copies of all available company literature, including the company’s most recent financial statement, to check gross sales. Bear in mind that in most cases this document will be next to impossible to get unless the company is publicly owned. But ask anyway. Look at the number of years the company has been in business, the areas where it operates, and how many distributors it has. Talk to company officers about the average earnings of its distributors, its product return policies, and the distributor dropout rates.

Look into the pay structure. Network marketing is an industry that has produced millionaires, but very rarely do people get rich in this business. Most direct sellers take in a modest income of a few hundred dollars per month, some more, depending on how hard they work and which company’s products they distribute. When investigating the pay structure, first look at the company’s claims of average earnings to determine how much money you can make. Also, study the compensation plan to figure out how you will make the money. Remember, you should be paid for products or services sold, not solely for recruitment of other associates. Next, determine whether the plan is multilevel or single-level. Some companies use a single-level model in which the seller is paid only on his or her own sales. But most operate using a multilevel structure in which distributors receive a percentage of their sales and the sales of members in their downline. The number of levels and the percentages paid per level vary from one company to the next but can run anywhere from a 5% commission on the low end to a 15% commission on the high end. Within a multilevel structure, some companies, rather than paying a percentage per level, pay on total sales accumulated by its distributors across several levels.

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